Through the looking glass
My therapist says my eyes are broken.
That when I look in the mirror, something in my brain and body is making me see a reflection much different than what other people see when they look at me.
I tell her she is wrong.
That the layers of fat along my arms, legs, and torso that need to be scraped off like ice on a car windshield after a particularly bad snowstorm aren’t just in my head.
I was recently diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I’ve had it for a long time.
It feels weird to name the beast; the thing I’ve lived with all of my adult life that thrives in the dark places of my brain, officially unrecognized and ignored.
You don’t look anorexic, the beast tells me.
I always thought looking a certain way was the motivation behind my behavior. Exercise addiction, restrictive eating, an unrelenting obsession with thigh gaps and calories, and the other painful behaviors I’ve adopted were just a very messy way of achieving my ultimate goal: Being Thin. And if I didn’t look unhealthy, then everything was okay—at least, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. My goal hadn’t been met yet. There was still work to be done.
An official diagnosis is a scary thing. It legitimizes a problem, one, in my case, that happens to be the psychiatric disorder with the highest mortality rate. I avoided confronting it for years, as my behavior fluctuated between eating and exercising in a way most people would consider healthy, to making up excuses as to why I had red eyes and a splotchy face when I came out of the bathroom, why I only ate a few bites of dinner, or why I looked thinner than usual.
It’s amazing what yoga can do for your arms!, I would say.
I was scared of a diagnosis. And I’m now scared about telling people what it is. Once, when I told an ex-boyfriend about my disordered eating, he said if I purged again he would break up with me. I laughed it off and said “It was just college.”
That was a lie. He never found out that my behaviors continued while we were together, the fear of him finding out compounded the already tangled and illogical thoughts and emotions that restricted much more than just my food. I figured he was trying to be kind—as if threatening something so heartbreaking would somehow snap me out of my behavior. But I knew I could not stop, and as much as I didn’t want to lose him, I also couldn’t break this addiction and obsession. So I purged in secret, and frequently skipped meals we didn’t eat together, saying lunch or dinner just slipped my mind.
Over time, things got much worse. If anyone ever asked, I smiled and shook my head, not wanting to admit to myself or to anyone else I had a “disorder.” I didn’t want to take up space, both physically and mentally, undeserving of people’s concern. I didn’t want people to be worried about me. I still don’t.
There are people struggling with things much more serious than my inability to be happy with my appearance. It’s just a phase. I can deal with it alone.
I look fine to you and to them.
But it’s not just about looking. It’s about understanding that my eating disorder is more complex than an overwhelming and all-consuming desire to be thin. It’s fueled by something deeper, something I don’t understand yet—whatever is feeding the beast is much richer, much darker than food, and I’m afraid that when I find out what that is, I won’t like it.
I don’t want to be defined by my disorder. I am more than anorexia, but I’m worried that by admitting my diagnosis I’ll be labeled as broken, or flawed, or problematic, or unlovable, and that’s all anyone will see.
I’m not sure when, exactly, I decided to take my friends’ advice and seek professional help.
It might have been during one of the many long, tearful minutes I spent violently shivering on the bathroom floor, hating myself, my appearance, my behavior, thinking “This isn’t normal.” The result of using a manicured finger to claw at the back of my throat, desperately needing to get rid of the portion of sandwich or salad or burrito consumed at dinner.
Though perhaps it was when I wrote about fitness trackers harming people with eating disorders, because I recognized myself in the significant research and interviews I conducted with psychologists and licensed clinical social workers who specialize in them.
I now stay far away from fitness wearables and calorie counters: In college, I used MyFitnessPal religiously to monitor how many calories I burned and consumed—no matter my weight, I always wanted to be 10 pounds lighter. I would go to bed hungry and empty because the app told me I hit my goal, and if I consumed too many calories I would purge them. In a brief moment of conscious self-care, after months of relying on technology to tell me when to put the fork down, I deleted the app from my phone.
Unfortunately, the habits that existed before the app could not be removed from my life as easily.
Therapy helps. She says that things might feel worse before they feel better.
Through it all, I have found power in words. Talking and writing are helping me accept that which I cannot control. Pages and pages of a Moleskine notebook are filled with black ink, stained with the feelings and truths I fought so long to pretend did not exist.
There is strength in words. In stories that barely scratch the surface of the pain, fear, self-loathing, and hope, feelings experienced on a regular basis—ones I’ve become numb to without realizing it.
When I’m not sure what to do or how to feel, or when I feel too much, I write. For as long as I’ve had my disorder, I’ve written about it. Now that I’m beginning my healing journey, I’m writing about it for me and you.
My name is Selena. I am anorexic.
I’m working on seeing things as they are. And trying to imagine they are beautiful.
I wish I could see myself
Like I see my shadow
Flawless, thin in the right light
A reflection with no face
But full of movement and emotion
Strong and solid, fluid and free
I hope one day someone sees me
Like I see my shadow
In the best ways
In all the ways that matter
Thank you to Jason (@bakedinapie) for creating the lead art, and for everyone who read a draft of this and gave me the confidence to publish it.